Phillip Hall. Fume. Crawley, WA: UWAP, 2017. ISBN: 978-1-74258-969-5
true god, we really are an arterial kaleidoscope
of silt-laden language.
This is a powerful and important collection of poetry. It achieves what poetry, at its very best, can sometimes do: through a marvellous crafting of the tools of language, these poems speak fully from the raw and generous heart of the poet, thereby taking the reader to the abrasive interface of self and world, the experience of the speaker and the confronting environment he finds himself in.
From 2011–2015, Hall worked as a teacher of outdoor education and camps at Borroloola, in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Fume is a homage to the resilience and richness of the community he found there – a community which adopted him into clan and family – as well as a lament and a call to action for all the ‘sorry business’ that has gone on, leaving behind an almost impossible legacy of trauma.
When Judith Wright wrote ‘Nigger’s Leap, New England’, she began to articulate the difficult position of the settler Australian in relation to the violence and dispossession perpetuated against Australia’s first peoples; as beneficiaries of that violence, how can we understand Country, or speak to the experience of the people still experiencing it? Hall’s work takes up that question, so pressing for Australia’s non-Indigenous and Indigenous inhabitants alike. How can he, ‘a middle-aged munanga’ (25)(white man / stranger) understand the landscape through which he travels or the people who live there?
In many ways, the answer to that question would appear to lie in what Hall refers to as ‘two-ways learning’ (88) – the ability to come into exchange with a willingness to listen as well as to share, to be open to new ways of understanding the world that might be profoundly destabilising. Of course, the possibilities for listening are also predicated on the generosity of the speaker and the circumstances of the sharing – such as his ‘lil-dad’ who, in a context of shared relationship, takes him to Tank Hill (22), enabling him to see country in ways he has never seen it before. In ‘Turtle Camp’ (48), we see a very explicit example of this two-ways learning where Hall, as teacher, provides ‘life-cycles and health’ and ‘field work’ while the bardi bardi (older women) and even the children can teach him about the turtle’s labouring ‘rhythm’ and, in language, what it might mean for the turtle to find its ‘true home’. In the poem ‘hand (pay) back (out)’ (64), his adopted Nana Miller passes onto him the story of a similar massacre to that described by Wright – but this time conveyed within the trust and responsibility of family where he is asked to write about the ‘skulls and bones / bearing grim evidence / of the awful slaughter / enacted there’ (65).
As Hall notes in his introductory essay, the ongoing suffering and the injustices experienced by the people of Borroloola became an immense personal burden as he increasingly stands with them, seeing the world from their point of view. Even being ‘family’, he ‘found living amongst so much remote and repressed trauma a dangerous thing’ (17):
Out of sight and out of mind
Borroloola is a bloom
of asbestos and neglect even as the flag flies black
for the people, yellow for the sun percolating
life, and red for the rust-
red country sodden
The idea of ‘dark’s drag’ (36), or the ‘bony clutching / reach’ of the ngabaya (ghost) or the siren lure of the nuwalinya (mermaid) pervade Hall’s poems. On the one hand, they are motivated by powerful currents of love and connection and the desire to contribute; on the other hand, they reflect the ongoing legacies of all sorry business which has gone before and which still stalks the people in their country – beautiful and broken.
Fume rises like ceremonial smoke out of these conflicting histories and impulses. The motif of the fume suggests the continuity of culture, the specificity of place (like the ‘faint glimmer of thermal plumes’ (44) across the landscape), while also evoking the ‘toxic burn’ (66) of the mine which contaminates country, or the ‘sniffed fume’s squall’ (27) of young people’s drug problems – and perhaps even the poet’s own anger, his fuming at a history of such cruelty and his own inability to change it, to bring healing to the people he has come to love. It is a strong image which permeates the collection.
As Hall states explicitly, in some ways the writing of these poems is an attempt to ‘write myself back to health’ (20), to use the cathartic aspect of writing as well as poetry’s particular ability to evoke complexity and ambiguity in order to cast off at least some of the demons of a personal and collective past. The writing of poetry is also clearly his response to the responsibilities passed onto him by his Gudanji family to communicate not only their sufferings but the specificity of their perspective and their stories. Writing about visual art, he notes:
Painting the lagoon or river bend
where your family is boss, where title is a grip
of creation knowledge, closed
to the outsider, this is the inherited
fight, to make graphic
the deeds of native-
While at Borroloola, Hall initiated a poetry writing group, ‘Diwurruwurru’ or message stick, in which poems were collectively written and communicated to the wider world. Using a combination of linguistic traditions – English, Kriol, the four language groups left in the Gulf region (Gudanji, Yanyuwa, Garrwa, Marra) – Hall continues the practice of the message stick in his own poems. Sometimes this means he ‘receives’, as in the poem the ‘Message Stick’ (72) which brings connection to family and place while he sits, brought low, in a psychiatric ward in Darwin. Sometimes this is also the role of his own poetry – to encode and distribute insight to those who are able to listen and interpret.
What do munanga know of salutarily singing country?
Of the numinous mischievously stirring strife
amongst already sabotaged custodians whose kujika’s [songline] scorched?
Who will tearfully sing him, big business, with millad [our] mob
in the dirt, pressing forward, hoping for peace?
No wonder Hall feels nearly ‘rubbed out’ (16). In an extraordinary act of personal and linguistic courage he has taken up this challenge to restore the scorched songlines, this ‘big business’ of his Indigenous family, to ‘tearfully sing him … pressing forward, hoping for peace’. It is now our responsibility, as Hall’s readers, to listen and to learn and to respond.
Rose Lucas is a Melbourne poet. Her most recent collection is Unexpected Clearing (UWAP, 2016). She teaches in Graduate Research at Victoria University.